Published December 11, 2020
By Claire Bessette

Norwich — The phones at Norwich Public Schools central office ring all day, and later, Superintendent Kristen Stringfellow’s cellphone takes over.

Desperate parents beg her to open schools full time. Teachers, paraeducators and support staff fear classrooms are too crowded and ask if schools should go to remote learning.

“The parents that call, their stories are heartbreaking,” Stringfellow told the Board of Education on Tuesday. “They are pretty much: ‘Stringfellow, you’ve got to get my kid in there full time, because I have to go to work. Do you want me to go to work and feed them, or do you want me to supervise them while they’re remote learning?’ And the staff members’ calls are just as heartbreaking. ‘What can I do to make sure my kids are safe, and I’m safe, and that my colleague is safe?'”

Norwich schools plan to remain in hybrid learning, with two days of in-person learning for most students, and four days for preschool, English language learners, special education and some “at-risk” students, through Dec. 20. The district will shift to remote learning Dec. 21-23 due to lack of staffing, and will re-evaluate the learning model in January, after the holiday break.

About 40% of the approximately 3,300 total students have opted for fully remote learning.

Through Dec. 4, Norwich schools have had 113 COVID-19 cases among students and staff. Only two cases were “presumed” to be in-school transmissions — one involving two adults and the other, an adult and a student, Stringfellow said.

Norwich has had 13 teachers, 4.1% of the district's 313 teachers, test positive, 10 of the 119 paraeducators, 8.4%, and nine of the 200 other staff. The 81 students — 21 remote learners and 60 in-person learners — who tested positive represent 2.4% of the 3,280 total students.

Teachers and principals are worried about some fully remote learners they never see or hear during online lessons, Stringfellow said.

“There have been just a couple of instances where principals have asked that we revoke the parents’ option to continue remote learning, because we can’t reach the kid at all,” Stringfellow told the board. “Even today (Tuesday), we had the Norwich police help us on a wellness check. The remote learning piece, some people are certainly taking it very, very serious. I can’t underscore that enough, but in a handful of occasions in the district, the principals or the teacher or sometimes the social worker has had to intervene and say, ‘Look, we need to bring your child in if we’re unsure about supervision.’”

Assistant Superintendent Tamara Gloster presented alarming statistics on absentee rates for city schools. In December 2019, the chronic absentee rate for Norwich schools was 7.18%. This month, the overall rate is 21.97%. Veterans’ Memorial elementary school has a 44.7% absentee rate. The Thomas Mahan School has the lowest rate, at 10.13%.

Gloster said staff are trying to reach out to parents and students and find ways to address the problem. “What more can we do? What more can our community do to ensure our kids are showing up in schools and reduce that number a little bit?

Lee-Ann Gomes, director of Norwich Human Services, knows parents are struggling with remote learning. Parents say their children are depressed and have emotional and behavioral issues.
“We at Human Services get the parents who need to go
to work,” Gomes said. “They are hourly workers. If they don’t show up, they don’t get paid.”

At the start of the school year, Norwich Human Services and Recreation Department launched the Parks and Rec Enrichment Program, a child care center at the Recreation Department, at first meant for children of Norwich teachers returning to work.

The center has a second location at the Uncas School and has expanded for school-age children of any local parents needing to get back to work. The city has received a $10,000 from the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut and $14,000 from Chelsea Groton Bank for scholarships to parents who can’t afford the $30 per day fee.

“We wish it was more utilized,” Gomes said.

About 20 children are enrolled. The program, open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., is for children from preschool to fifth grade, is “heavily supervised” with COVID-19 precautions and offers outdoor activity and help with schoolwork.

The city also received a $25,000 grant from the Community Foundation to purchase laptops, Chromebooks, internet access and training for parents on internet access.
“What we don’t want is for little kids, fifth grade and under, to stay at home alone,” Gomes said.

On Thursday, a coalition of public education unions statewide submitted a petition with 14,000 signatures to Gov. Ned Lamont demanding schools shift to fully remote learning if COVID-19 safety protocols and a uniform policy for reporting and responding to positive cases are not enacted. The group contends policies are inconsistent by district, placing teachers, staff, and students at risk for contracting COVID-19.